Criticism is a tricky business, in that rarely (if ever) a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down rating will suffice. An audience demands more from their neighborhood critic: an explanation of the review is required to gauge its reliability. So, too, is that elaboration helpful to the critic itself, in that a detailed analysis can help one to appreciate a particular work beyond one’s visceral response to it. This is all to say that I basically enjoyed the two shows mounted in Studio Theater this past Friday night. True, I was not viscerally thrilled. But in understanding the directors’ levels of experience, as well as the limitations placed upon them by the department, I was able to find unexpected value in what was placed on stage and, even briefly, forget the analysis and enjoy myself for a few minutes.
The first offering of the evening, first-year Amalia Hertel’s production of “The First Fireworks”, recounted a sweet love story between mother and daughter, as they reconciled their differences in time to enjoy the eponymous fireworks together. Except, in this case, the fireworks never came: where one might expect even a brief flare of light to indicate rockets going off, there was just a simple fade to black. Despite this being the crux of the show, as a bare stage production, the lack of a light cue is understandable: by contract, bare stages are not allowed to have excessive light or sound cues, nor props or costumes or set pieces. For “The First Fireworks”, however, age make-up has been applied to sophomore Michelle Secunda, distinguishing her Dawn (the mother), from sophomore Julie Wertheimer’s Helen, the daughter. But the make-up only serves to distract from those elements lacking from the rest of the production. Why, for example, doesn’t Helen look pregnant, even though her baby is constantly referenced? It’s a disjointing discrepancy.
And yet, I still enjoyed it. “The First Fireworks” is the sort of show that lends itself to melodramatic overacting, and the saving grace of Hertel’s production is the levity that both Secunda and Wertheimer bring to their roles. They are natural comediennes, inciting laughs where there aren’t any intended (and, in doing so, intensifying the sadness of the characters’ disconnect as it is masked by humor).
Sure, neither actress moved as if she were pregnant or old, and the frequent “crosses to nowhere” (that is, unmotivated crosses) indicated Hertel’s status as a novice director, but the relationship built between Secunda’s Dawn and Wertheimer’s Helen confirmed that serious character work was done during the rehearsal process. As a result, I was able to extend my suspension of disbelief and slip into what amounted to an innocuous, but nevertheless sweet, performance.
Freshman Ian Tully’s “Impromptu” was less heart-warming. Clearly inspired by Luigi Pirandello’s Six Character in Search of an Author, Tad Mosel creates a situation in which four actors are called to an audition and told to improvise a play, allowed to leave only upon its completion. It’s a work of meta-theatre that is akin to my own theatrical explorations, and yet I absolutely loathed it. For me, the script proved too self-congratulatory in its unconventionality, yet contradictorily too rigid in its circumstances. A curtain is described as being present; the actors state that it is currently the afternoon. Assuming that Tully was contractually obligated to leave these details unchanged, Mosel has created a particular theatrical environment that completely clashed with the circumstances of Studio that Friday night, rendering his exploration of audience and actor interaction an absolute failure.
This is not to say, however, that the production was disastrous, only the script on which the production was based. Though Tully’s show is prone to the same “crosses to nowhere” as those that plagued Hertel’s “The First Fireworks”, the character work showcased in “Impromptu” is absolutely phenomenal. Freshman Emma Van Steenwyk’s Winifred and freshman Jess Chrzan’s Lora existed on the edges of the story as female archetypes until they didn’t, such repetitive actions as the crossing of arms and holding of cigarettes suggested these were roles from which the women would soon break. Sophomore Micah Snow-Cobb brought an intense earnestness to the role of Tony, taking the character beyond simple dissident to tortured prisoner. And despite the one-note nature of the blustering Ernest, freshman Padraig Sullivan managed to straddle a fine line between fun caricature and haunted veteran, relying upon the only persona he knows.
Tully and Hertel have a monumental journey ahead of them in terms of developing their directorial craft. I am excited, for despite the technical glitches, both already show an understanding of the development of character. And, really, when one has stripped away everything: if your characters are strong, then you have achieved something truly good, no matter how the critics may analyze it.